In Stafford County, which has more pigs than people, Scott Pfortmiller recalls the devastating scene that swept through his family’s hog operation about four years ago.
For several weeks in the spring of 2014, sickness ravaged the farm’s farrowing barns. Piglets were dying from a very contagious porcine epidemic diarrhea virus that was affecting countless hog producers across America.
The farm combatted the virus by feeding diluted fecal matter to their sows and disinfecting barns. While the family hog operation survived, Pfortmiller, the chairman of the Kansas Pork Association, hopes he and other producers never experience such a deadly outbreak again.
“The industry as a whole is on solid ground,” said Pfortmiller as he walked between his hog barns on a fall morning. “We are more proactive than reactive.”
He sees those efforts growing along a hilltop at Kansas State University in Manhattan where a new Plum Island-type facility is rising on the skyline. In coming years, scientists here will study diseases that threaten both America’s animal agricultural industry and public health.
“I see it when I drive around campus going to football games,” said Pfortmiller of the complex near the stadium that changes substantially every time he visits.
“It looks like a fortress sitting back there,” he added.
“Silicon Valley of Biodefense”
That fortress - which won’t be operational until 2022 or 2023 - is the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. It sits along a 300-mile corridor that stretches from Manhattan to Columbia, Missouri, where the single largest concentration of animal health and nutrition companies in the world is located.
Manhattan is the anchor - being dubbed the “Silicon Valley of Biodefense" thanks to NBAF and the other state and federal animal research facilities that surround it.
The university is featured in several sections of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense's special bipartisan report released on Oct. 18. "Defense of Animal Agriculture," is based on a January 2017 agro-defense discussion conducted at K-State.
The panel is made up of former congressional leaders and national officials, including former Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle. It was during discussions at K-State that Daschle designated the university as a biodefense epicenter - or a “Silicon Valley.”
“I truly believe if you look at the assets that are here - and especially once NBAF is done - I don’t think there is a higher concentration of biodefense assets anywhere else in the country let alone the world than Manhattan,” said Ron Trewyn, K-State’s NBAF liaison.
NBAF - with its $1.25 billion price tag - will be a biosafety level 4 laboratory replacing the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York. It will become the country’s foremost animal disease research facility.
But situated all around the budding structure is a natural synergy of buildings dedicated to animal health and research. Just down the road is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security-supported Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases, which develops countermeasures for emerging high-priority animal diseases that can spread to people. Also nearby is the College of Veterinary Medicine, the Kansas Department of Agriculture, the USDA’s Center for Grain and Animal Health Research and the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center, which unites biosecurity researchers with federal, state and local agencies to provide a response to emerging agricultural threats.
Meanwhile, right next door is K-State’s Biosecurity Research Institute, which is already working on four of the diseases that will be studied by NBAF, including classical swine fever, African swine fever and Japanese encephalitis. BRI - located at Pat Roberts Hall - is a biosafety level-3 facility that addresses threats to plant, animal and human health and food contamination through infectious disease and pathogen research.
The entire complex is working together to attack threats to U.S. agriculture, said Stephen Higgs, who leads the efforts at BRI.
Higgs’ facility doesn’t necessarily draw the attention of NBAF - sitting in the shadows of the mass of metal and concrete being erected behind it. But the research being done inside is one of a kind under one unit. It is part of the reason that Higgs - a passionate scientist from England, took the job at BRI in 2011.
“We move a column of air that is as big as a football field and as high as the tallest building in the world,” said Higgs of the safety measures here. “It’s all filtered. If you have allergies, they sometimes disappear.”
Scientists have studied about 20 foodborne plant and animal diseases since opening about a decade ago. Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus is one of them, as well as avian influenza.
BRI has an insectary to study diseases like Zika, as well as Rift Valley fever virus, which is another NBAF project. The virus, spread by mosquitoes, causes abortion in animals, Higgs said. It is zoonotic, meaning it can transfer from animals to humans.
“We’ve done the first studies in livestock in the United States since 1987,” he said.
Other scientists are studying wheat blast - a pathogen that in the past has wiped out crops in Brazil. It has recently been introduced into Bangladesh and India and could devastate global wheat production if it continues to spread.
There are places around the country - like Plum Island - that research livestock. Others are dedicated to foodborne illnesses, zoonotic diseases and plant research.
“But I don’t think there is anywhere in the world that has the capabilities that we have under one roof,” said Higgs. “That’s why I was excited to come here. This is a really big picture of the threats that could happen to agriculture.”
Natural or terroristic
Agriculture, after all, is the economic fabric of many states, especially Kansas. But even the most remote of landscapes - including Pfortmiller’s farm - aren’t immune to potential outbreaks. The economic impact alone is staggering. Avian influenza cost the U.S. economy $3.3 billion, depopulating 50 million birds on 230 farms, according to the Blue Ribbon Panel’s report. Moreover, the virus that affected Pfortmiller’s farm cost the U.S. pork industry returns of $481 to $929 million.
Not only does an outbreak devastate an individual operation but also the global food supply - halting foreign trade, said Higgs.
Prevention against biological threats – whether naturally occurring or more terroristic in nature – have been gaining momentum for a few decades. In March 1999, K-State proposed a homeland defense, food safety and emergency preparedness program. That October, then K-State President Jon Wefald presented testimony on what could happen if an agricultural biological weapons threat occurred.
The report eventually resulted in the building of BRI, Higgs said.
Awareness heightened after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Trewyn.
“Some of the slides I do has an actual list that Navy Seals found in a cave in Afghanistan in 2002 of pathogens that Al-Qaida was working on as bioweapons,” he said.
Of the 16 on the list, six could affect people and another six would have impacted the livestock and poultry industry, Trewyn said. Four were targeted at crops.
But it's not known how all diseases get spread. It’s unclear how West Nile - spread by mosquitoes - entered the United States in 1999.
Porcine diarrhea virus killed 8 million pigs, Higgs said.
“And, like West Nile, we don’t know how it got here,” Higgs said, adding BRI did research on the virus soon after it was identified in the U.S. “Maybe it came in imported animal feed. But we probably will never know.”
Pfortmiller said the family lost a full month’s worth of production, but “we came out of it OK.”
“The whole goal is to continue to work on these things,” said Trewyn. “The faster we can identify these things, the faster we can respond.”